Research: The Listening Project

The Listening Project is a collaborative project between Radio 4, BBC Local Radio stations and the British Library. Its premise is poetically simple: one listens to, or perhaps eavesdrop on, to two people having a conversation with each other. They are short – around about 3 minutes long, and the conversationalists know each other beforehand, often friends, and sometimes family.


There is never a prescribed topic or theme, and I don’t think there are rules (although I never hear swearing) so each conversation is not only unique but also doesn’t necessarily fit with any of the other conversations at all.

The low barrier to entry – anybody in the UK could have their conversation recorded, either in their nearest BBC Radio, or in their home – means that not only do you get a variety of topics that are more reflective of the population that a lot of what is often broadcast on Radio 4, but you also get people who are better reflect societal demographics in terms of age, in terms of class, and in terms of accent. Far from ‘BBC English’, on conversations in ‘The listening project’ often have a broad Black country, or Yorkshire, Glaswegian or Swansea accents. This is a breath of fresh air on Radio 4 the West Midlands accent, in particular, feels like home.

Although much of this makes it similar to ‘This American Life’, The listening project’ is distinct in several key ways: the lack of overarching theme, the absolute brevity, the immediate familiarity of the British context, accents and references. It’s collaboration with the British Library also lends it another element – that of the archival. The conversations will act as, and the project is designed in part to generate, something like ‘Time Capsules’. This links with the British Library’s recent exhibition of sound resources. I’m reminded in particular of a clip from the beginning of Radio Four’s ‘Today’ program on the day after the European Union Referendum. The conversations in ‘The listening project’ are also a piece of recorded oral history, but coming from and connected more directly with the general population.

What I gained from this:

  • Personal stories, even inane ones are interesting to listen to, even if the speaker may not be convinced of this fact. The resultant recorded audio can act as either direct oral recorded history for future generations, but even just connecting with a few now is a noble cause.
  • It was listening to podcasts and radio broadcasts like this one that has steeped me in personal storytelling which is reflected in my writing.

What I’m going to take forward:

  • An appreciation of the importance and value of oral history as well as the value added by a base of technical professional grade recording equipment and technicians


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